The Iraq End Game: The Krauthammer Version
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 8 November 2011 19:17

Not all of what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes is easy to agree with. However, in his latest take on the Iraq policy of the Obama administration, despite some degree of simplification and hyperbole, there are some good points relating to Iraqi government formation in 2010 that are not usually articulated in US policy-making circles.

Krauthammer writes,

“Three years, two abject failures. The first was the administration’s inability, at the height of American post-surge power, to broker a centrist nationalist coalition governed by the major blocs — one predominantly Shiite (Maliki’s), one predominantly Sunni (Ayad Allawi’s), one Kurdish — that among them won a large majority (69 percent) of seats in the 2010 election.

Vice President Joe Biden was given the job. He failed utterly. The government ended up effectively being run by a narrow sectarian coalition where the balance of power is held by the relatively small (12 percent) Iranian-client Sadr faction.”

This is true.

At least to some extent. Krauthammer is making the valid point that not everyone needed to be included in the second Iraqi government, and that the eventual inclusion of the Sadrists did make Maliki overly reliant on Iran.

At the actual time of the government-formation struggle, the idea of a more compact government was propagated most enthusiastically by former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who as early as in April wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times,

“The Obama administration should not sit back and allow Iran and sectarian parties to decide Iraq’s political future. President Barack Obama needs to send a message that Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran and their Iraqi surrogates.
To this end the US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach and encourage the Maliki coalition, the Allawi coalition and the Kurdish alliance to form a grand coalition and avoid steps that would drive Mr Maliki into accepting Iran’s proposals.”

The problem was that this and other US proposals for “intervention” only envisaged a desirable end result, i.e. a coalition of Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurds. They did not address or engage with the question of how their preferred nominee for prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, would actually end up getting that position in accordance with Iraqi constitutional procedure.

When the Americans found themselves unable to square desired end games with constitutional process, instead of looking more carefully at the constitution or ideas circulating among the Iraqis at the time, they began making up the rules themselves. This included complete inventions like the strategic policy council – designed as a consolation prize for Ayad Allawi in lieu of the premiership - as well as a last-minute attempt to oversell him the largely symbolic presidency. Khalilzad’s own preferred solution was a suggestion for splitting the premiership in two two-year terms, which again was unconstitutional and almost certain to end up with an acrimonious struggle once the first term neared expiry, if not earlier.

The disastrous outcome of these failures – both that of the largely passive Obama administration as well as the general haplessness of the minority “hands-on” crowd that preferred the Khalilzad approach – is the oversized, still-not-quite-seated Iraqi government of today, unable to deliver Washington the extension of the SOFA that at least the Pentagon, if not the White House, had been craving for.

What the Americans could have done instead was to listen to the Iraqi debate at the time, where ideas that could have solved the whole issue actually existed. The first step would have been the formation of a super-bloc of Maliki’s State of Law and the secular Iraqiyya. This coalition could have ruled itself with a majority of about 180 deputies in parliament, or could have added the Kurds later on (the Kurds had signalled they would not be part of a greater bloc formation, so the premiership issue would have to be settled between Allawi and Maliki). The key point is that the new bloc could have agreed on a prime minister, most probably Maliki, that would not have been dependent upon the Sadrists or Iran.

Arguably, to all parties including the Kurds, the best way of structuring the government would actually have been to exclude the Kurds entirely. By so doing, the government would have had greater incentives for developing internal coherence and autonomy versus the stormy regional environment, and would also have been in a better position to provide generous concessions to the KRG. The problem was that the sheer thought of not having the Kurds included would have prompted immediate panic in Beltway circles, where there seems to be general ignorance of the fact that the whole idea behind deep autonomy for the Kurds in the constitution is precisely to safeguard them against the prospect of no representation at the level of the central government. The checks and balances were already in place, and yet Washington kept clamouring for more!

A smaller governance-oriented cabinet would have confined the federalism question to the KRG and in turn provided for greater leeway in oil-related negotiations and territorial bargains. Conversely, in today’s situation with a weak, oversized cabinet and 15 un-federated governorates that are increasingly looking like potential federalism threats, paranoia and authoritarianism are likely to characterise the executive in the months and years to come.

Let’s not forget that Charles Krauthammer enthusiastically gave his stamp of approval to the happy-go-lucky federalism clauses of the Iraqi constitutional draft in September 2005.